Britain’s inter-war super-rich, the 1928/9 ‘millionaire list’.

by Peter Scott (Henley Business School at the University of Reading)

The roaring 1920s. Available at <;

Most of our information on wealth distribution and top incomes is derived from data on wealth left at death, recorded in probates and estate duty statistics. This study utilises a unique list of all living millionaires for the 1928/9 tax year, compiled by the Inland Revenue to estimate how much a 40 per cent estate duty on them would raise in government revenue. Millionaires were identified by their incomes (over £50,000, or £3 million in 2018 prices), equivalent to a capitalised sum of over £1 million (£60 million in 2018 prices). Data for living millionaires are particularly valuable, given that even in the 1930s millionaires often had considerable longevity, and data on wealth at death typically reflected fortunes made, or inherited, several decades previously. Some millionaires’ names had been redacted – where their dates of birth or marriage were known – but cross-referencing with various data sources enabled the identification of 319 millionaires, equivalent to 72.8 percent of the number appearing on the millionaire list.

The tax year 1928 to 1929 is a very useful bench-mark for assessing the impact of the First World War and its aftermath on the composition of the super-rich. Prior to the 20th century, the highest echelons of wealth were dominated by the great landowners; reflecting a concentration of land-ownership unparalleled in Europe. William Rubinstein found that the wealth of the greatest landowners exceeded that of the richest businessmen until 1914, if not later. However, war-time inflation, higher taxes, and the post-war agricultural depression negatively impacted their fortunes. Meanwhile some industrialists benefitted enormously from the War.

By 1928 business fortunes had pushed even the wealthiest aristocrats, the Dukes of Bedford and Westminster, into seventh and eighth place on the list of top incomes. Their taxable incomes, £360,000 and £336,000 respectively, were dwarfed by those of the richest businessmen, such as the shipping magnate Sir John Ellerman (Britain’s richest man; the son of an immigrant corn broker who died in 1871, leaving £600) with a 1928 income of £1,553,000, or James Williamson, the first Baron Ashton, who  pioneered the mass production of linoleum – second on the list, with £760,000. Indeed, some 90 percent of named 1928/9 millionaires had fortunes based on (non-landed) business incomes. Moreover, the vast majority – 85.6 percent of non-landed males on the list – were active businesspeople, rather than rentiers.

 “Businesspeople millionaires” were highly clustered in certain sectors (relative to those sectors’ shares of all corporate profits): tobacco (5.40 times over-represented); shipbuilding (4.79); merchant and other banking (3.42); foods (3.20); ship-owning (3.02); other textiles (2.98); distilling (2.67), and brewing (2.59). These eight sectors collectively comprised 42.4 percent of all 1928/9 millionaires, but only 15.5 percent of aggregate profits. Meanwhile important sectors such as chemicals, cotton and woollen textiles, construction, and, particularly, distribution, are substantially under-represented.

The over-represented sectors were characterised by either rapid cartelisation and/or integration which, in most cases, had intensified during the War and its aftermath. Given that Britain had very limited tariffs, cartels and monopolies could only raise prices in sectors with other barriers to imports, principally “strategic assets”: assets that sustain competitive advantage through being valuable, rare, inimitable, and imperfectly substitutable. These included patents (rayon); control of distribution (brewing and tobacco); strong brands (whiskey; branded packaged foods); reputational assets (merchant banking); or membership of international cartels that granted territorial monopolies  (shipping; rayon). Conversely, there is very little evidence of “technical” barriers such as L-shaped cost curves that could have offset the welfare costs of industrial combination/concentration through scale economies. Instead, amalgamation or cartelisation were typically followed by rising real prices.

Another, less widespread but important tactic for gaining a personal and corporate competitive edge, was the use of sophisticated tax avoidance/evasion techniques to reduce tax liablity to a fraction of its headline rate. Tax avoidance was commonplace among Britain’s economic elite by the late 1920s, but a small proportion of business millionaires developed it to a level where most of their tax burden was removed, mainly via transmuting income into non-taxable capital gains and/or creating excessive depreciation tax allowances. Several leading British millionaires, including Ellerman, Lord Nuffield, Montague Burton, and the Vestey brothers (Union Cold Storage) were known to the Inland Revenue as skilled and successful tax avoiders.

These findings imply that the composition of economic elites should not simply be conflated with ‘wealth-creation’ prosperity (except for those elites), especially where their incomes include a substantial element of rent-seeking. Erecting or defending barriers to competition (through cartels, mergers, and strategic assets) may increase the number of very wealthy people, but  unlikely to have generated a positive influence on national economic growth and living standards — unless accompanied by rationalisation to substantially lower costs. In this respect typical inter-war business millionaires had strong commonalities with earlier, landed, British elites, in that they sustained their wealth through creating, and then perpetuating, scarcity in the markets for the goods and services they controlled.

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Inequality dynamics in turbulent times

by María Gómez León (Instituto Figuerola/Universidad Carlos III, Madrid) and Herman J. de Jong (University of Groningen)


The Home Front in Britain during the Second World War. Available here

Recent influential studies on the historical evolution of inequality and its causes (Milanovic 2016; Piketty 2014) have attracted new interest in the topic. While attributed to different factors, there is a wide consensus on the slowdown of inequality in western Europe during the twentieth century up to the 1980s—a phenomenon commonly referred to as the ‘great levelling’ or ‘egalitarian revolution’. Yet, we do not know how differently this deceleration evolved across countries. Turbulent episodes during the first half of the twentieth century—including two World Wars, the Great Depression and the upsurge of radical parties—suggest that, at least in the short run, inequality may have followed very different patterns across European nations. However, we have little empirical evidence, due to the lack of data on income distribution before 1950, especially for the interwar years.

In a forthcoming article we provide new annual data on income inequality for two leading European countries, Germany and Britain, for the first half of the twentieth century. Using dynamic social tables, we obtain comparable annual estimates (measured as Gini coefficients) covering the full range of income distribution. Evidence from Germany and Britain (Figure 1) yields two main results. First, the drop in inequality was neither steady nor similar across these countries, supporting the notion of inequality cycles (Milanovic 2016; Prados de la Escosura 2008). Second, inequality trends in Germany and Britain tended to follow opposite patterns.

Figure 1. Inequality trends in Britain and Germany.  For data and sources see Gómez León and de Jong (Forthcoming)

What drove inequality changes in these two countries? How did inequality develop for specific groups of the population?  On the first question, we find that in Germany before 1933 and from 1939 onwards, variations in the relationship between owners and workers as well as variations within the group of workers (across work status and gender) drove changes in income distribution. During the Nazi period, only differences between owners and workers help to explain changes in inequality, as the abolition of trade unions and the setting of maximum wages precluded the dispersion of labour earnings. On the other hand, the dispersion of earnings among British workers appears to have been the main driver of changes in inequality before the Great War and after 1939, when the reduction of skill premiums and gender payment inequalities offset the relative increase in incomes. However, from the First World War to the outbreak of the Second World War, differences between proprietors and workers, as well as changes in labour earnings dispersion, drove inequality changes.

On the second question, we observe that in both countries the winners of the economic expansion experienced between 1900 and 1950 were the upper-low and lower-middle classes (i.e. the salaried and wage-earners in both manufacturing and war-related heavy industries). However, the gains linked to industrial expansion during the First World War and the Second World War were concentrated among the upper classes in Germany, while in Britain the benefits were more evenly distributed among the working classes. The reverse occurred during the interwar period.

In line with Lindert and Williamson (2016) and Piketty (2014), our paper points primarily towards political and institutional factors as the crucial drivers of inequality trends during the first half of the twentieth century. The usefulness of dynamic social tables for exploring national income distributions in the past invites future research on other European countries as well as on other potential factors (e.g. migration, technological change) affecting short-term inequality dynamics during the period.


To contact the lead author: e-mail: ; Twitter: @Maria0zmg



Gómez León, M. and de Jong, J. H., ‘Inequality in turbulent times: Income distribution in Germany and Britain 1900–1950’, Economic History Review, (Forthcoming)

Lindert, P. H. and Williamson, J. G., Unequal gains: American growth and inequality since 1700 (Princeton, NJ, 2016).

Milanovic, B., Global inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

Piketty, T., Capital in the twenty-first century (Cambridge, Mass., 2014).
Prados de la Escosura, L., ‘Inequality, poverty and the Kuznets curve in Spain, 1850–2000’, European Review of Economic History, 12 (2008), pp. 287–324.


From VoxEU – Wellbeing inequality in retrospect

Rising trends in GDP per capita are often interpreted as reflecting rising levels of general wellbeing. But GDP per capita is at best a crude proxy for wellbeing, neglecting important qualitative dimensions. 36 more words

via Wellbeing inequality in retrospect — Recent Articles

To elaborate further on the topic, Prof. Leandro de la Escosura has made available several databases on inequality, accessible here, as well as a book on long-term Spanish economic growth, available as open source here


from VOX – The return of regional inequality: Europe from 1900 to today

by Joan Rosés (LES) and Nikolaus Wolf (Humboldt University)


Legacies of inequality: the case of Brazil

by Evan Wigton-Jones (University of California, Riverside)

The Rio Team. In Kidder, D.P., Brazil and the Brazilians : portrayed in historical and descriptive sketches, Philadelphia 1857. Available at


 Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in issues of economic inequality. This research offers a contribution to this discussion by analysing the effects of inequality within Brazil.

Firstly, it shows that the climate is a key determinant of long-run inequality in Brazilian context. It uses data from a national census conducted in 1920 to show that warmer regions with high rainfall were characterised by plantation economies, with a wealthy agricultural elite and a large underclass of poor labourers. In contrast, cooler and drier areas were conducive to smaller family farms, and hence resulted in a more equitable society.

The study then uses information from the 2000 census to show that this local inequality has persisted for generations: areas that were historically unequal in 1920 are generally unequal today as well.

Finally, the research shows that greater long-term inequality inhibits regional development. It also shows evidence that inequality affects local governance, as municipal spending on health, education and welfare is significantly lower in more economically unequal areas.

To show the climate’s influence on local inequality, the study created an index that quantifies the relative suitability of land for plantation agricultural production. The metric is based on the temperature and precipitation requirements of different crops that are uniquely plantation or smallholder in their method of production. For example, sugarcane has historically been produced on large plantations, while wheat was often cultivated on small farms.

The research then shows that localities with a favourable climate for plantation agriculture contained a more unequal distribution of land. To measure the concentration of land ownership, it calculates a Gini index – a standard measure of inequality that ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (one individual holds all land).

As Brazil’s economy was predominantly agrarian in 1920, this distribution of land is a good proxy for that of income and wealth. The research combines this with data on municipal spending in the 1920s to show that local governments with higher land inequality spent less on education, health, public goods and public electricity. For example, a one unit increase in the Gini index is associated with a .76 percentage point decline in such spending.

The effects of this inequality have ramifications for contemporary socio-economic welfare in Brazil. Not only has local inequality persisted throughout the twentieth century, but it has also hindered present-day municipal development. Here it measures local development using the municipal-level human development index (HDI) – a metric that accounts for education, public health and income – for the year 2000.

It shows that historically unequal areas score much lower on the HDI: a one unit increase in 1920 land inequality is associated with a reduction of .38 points in this index (which, like the Gini index, is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating greater development).

Furthermore, the legacies of historical inequality are still manifest in contemporary local governance: a one unit increase in historical inequality is associated with a .49 percentage point decrease in municipal-level welfare spending for the year 2000.

These findings suggest several important conclusions:

  • First, the environment may play an important role in determining inequality and long-term development, even within countries.
  • Second, economic disparities can persist for generations.
  • Lastly, inequality can have a corrosive effect on welfare and governance, even at a local level.

It should be noted, however, that this study has focused on inequality within Brazil. The extent to which these findings can be generalised to other settings requires further study.

Globalisation and Economic Development: A Lesson from History

by Luigi Pascali (Pompeu Fabra University)

History teaches us that globalisation does not automatically translate into economic development.

How does globalisation affect development? This question has a long tradition in economics and has been much debated both in the academia and in policy circles. Neoclassical theories tell us that reducing trade barriers across countries should provide net benefits to individual economies by making markets more efficient and stimulating competition. Testing these theories, however, turns out to be difficult: rich countries are generally also those that trade the most, but is it trade that makes them rich, or do they trade more because they are rich to start with?

The ideal way to answer to these questions would be through an experiment, in which we randomly divide all the countries of the world into two groups and then we reduce trade costs for one group, while keeping trade costs constant for the other group. The difference in the observed GDP growth in the following years between the two set of countries would eventually provide us with an estimate of the impact of trade integration on development.

It turns out that history can provide us with such an experiment. The invention of the steamship in the late 19th century greatly reduced trade costs for some countries but not for others; whether a country was able to reduce its trade costs as a result of this innovation was the result of its geography, rather than economic forces. In a recent paper (Pascali, forthcoming), this natural experiment is used to assess the causal impact of trade on development.

The Experiment

Before the steamship, sea routes were shaped by winds. As an example, consider Figure 1, which illustrates a series of journeys made by British sailing ships in the 19th century, between England, the Cape of Good Hope and Java, and Figure 2, which depicts the prevailing sea-surface winds in the world.  Winds tend to follow a clockwise pattern in the North Atlantic; consequently, sailing ships would sail westward from Western Europe, after travelling south to 30 N latitude and reaching the ‘trade winds’, thus arriving in the Caribbean, rather than travelling straight to North America. The result is that trade systems historically tended to follow a triangular pattern between Europe, Africa, the West Indies and the United States. Furthermore, because in the South Atlantic winds tend to blow counterclockwise, sailing ships would not sail directly southward to the Cape of Good Hope; rather, they would first sail southwest toward Brazil and then move east to the Cape of Good Hope at 30 S latitude.

Figure 1. 15 journeys made by British ships between 1800 and 1860

fig 1

Notes: These journeys were randomly selected from the CLIWOC dataset among all voyages between England and Java comprised in the dataset. 


Figure 2. Prevailing winds in May (between 2000 and 2002)

fig 2

Note: direction of wind defined by the direction of the arrow and speed by the length of the arrow. 


The invention and subsequent development of the steamship was a watershed event in maritime transport and was the major driver of the first wave of trade globalisation (1870-1913), an increase in international trade that was unprecedented in human history. For the first time, vessels were not at the mercy of the winds, and trade routes became independent of wind patterns.

The steam engine, however, reduced shipping times in a disproportionate manner across trade routes, depending on the type of winds that vessels used to face throughout their journeys. In some routes, shipping times were cut by more than half, while in some others the change was minimal.

These asymmetric changes in shipping times (and related trade costs) across countries are used as a natural experiment, to explore the effect of international trade on economic development.


Exploiting the random variation in trade costs, generated by the transition from sail to steam, this research documents that the consequences of the first wave of trade globalisation on development were not necessarily positive. On a sample of 36 countries, the average impact, in the short run, was a reduction in per-capita GDP, population density and urbanisation rates.

This average negative impact, however, masks large differences across different groups of countries.

Firstly, the initial wave of trade globalisation turned out to be particularly detrimental in countries that were already less economically developed to start with and it was probably the major reason behind the Great Divergence, the economic divergence observed between the richest countries and the rest of the world, in the second-half of the nineteenth century.

Secondly, trade turned out to be very beneficial for countries that were characterised by strong constraints on executive power, a distinct feature of the institutional environment that has been demonstrated to favour private investment.

Why should we expect institutions to be crucial to benefiting from trade? A common argument is that a country with ‘good’ institutions will suffer less from the hold-up under-investment problem in those industries that intensively rely on relationship-specific assets. In this sense, good institutions are a crucial source of comparative advantage in non-agricultural sectors, in which the hold-up problem is more binding. These results confirm this theoretical prediction: a reduction in trade costs increased the share of exports in non-agricultural products, and the share of the population living in large cities, only in those countries characterised by stronger constraints on the executive power.


How did the rise in international trade affect economic development? This research addressed this question using novel trade data and an historical experiment of history. It finds that 1) the adoption of the steamship had a major impact on patterns of international trade worldwide, 2) only a small number of countries, characterised by more inclusive institutions, benefited from trade integration, and 3) globalisation was the major driver of the Great Divergence.

Policymakers who are willing to learn from history are advised to consider that a reduction in trade barriers across countries does not automatically produce (at least in the short-run) large positive effects on economic development and can increase inequality across nations.


This article is based on research presented in the following paper: “The Wind of Change: Maritime Technology, Trade and Economic Development”, The American Economic Review, forthcoming. The associated working paper is available on the CAGE website

Safe-haven asset: property speculation in medieval England

by Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick (ICMA Centre, University of Reading)


While we might imagine the medieval English property market to have been predominantly ‘feudal’ in nature and therefore relatively static, this research reveals that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it demonstrated increasing signs of commercialisation.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that a series of demographic crises in the fourteenth century caused an increase in market activity, as opportunities for property ownership were opened up to new sections of society.

Chief among these was the Black Death of 1348-50, which wiped out over a third of the population. In contrast with previous research, this research shows that after a brief downturn in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the English market in freehold property experienced a surge in activity; between 1353 and 1370, the number of transactions per year almost doubled in number.

The Black Death prompted aristocratic landowners to dispose of their estates, as the high death toll meant that they no longer had access to the labour with which to cultivate them. At the same time, the gentry and professional classes sought to buy up land as a means of social advancement, resulting in a widespread downward redistribution of land.

In light of the fact that during this period labour shortages made land much less profitable in terms of agricultural production, we might expect property prices to have fallen.

Instead, this research demonstrates that this was not the case: the price of freehold land remained robust and certain types of property (such as manors and residential buildings) even rose in value. This is attributed to the fact that increasing geographical and social mobility during this period allowed for greater opportunities for property acquisition, and thus the development of property as a commercial asset.

This is indicated by changes in patterns of behaviour among buyers. The data suggest that an increasing number of people from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in property speculation – in other words, purchase for the purposes of investment rather than consumption.

These investors purchased multiple properties, often at a considerable distance from their place of residence, and sometimes clubbed together with other buyers to form syndicates. They were often wealthy London merchants, who had acquired large amounts of disposable capital through their commercial activities.

The commodification of housing is a subject that has been much debated in recent years. By exploring the origins of property as an ‘asset class’ in the pre-modern economy, this research draws inevitable comparisons with the modern context: in medieval times, much as now, ‘bricks and mortar’ were viewed as a secure financial investment.

How to achieve a more compassionate capitalism: look back to medieval Cambridge

by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester), Mark Casson (University of Reading), John Lee (University of York), Katie Phillips (University of Reading)


How can modern economies reconcile the pursuit of international competitiveness with promotion of the common good? They could learn from the medieval period!

Contrary to popular belief, England in the late thirteenth century had a dynamic economy. Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size.

But this was not an early form of individualistic capitalism. Family bonds were strong and community loyalty was intense. Economic ‘winners’ showed compassion for losers, rather than contempt.

Thirteenth-century expansion was not based on a consumer-driven boom. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Hospitals cared for the old, the poor and the needy, including special facilities for those affected by disease. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals.

Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town.

Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. New professions emerged in response to the growing demand for legal and administrative services.

The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. But local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community.

This self-sustaining system was, however, broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.

From NEP-HIS Blog: ‘The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism’, by Avner Offer

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford ( Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses […]

via How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility? — The NEP-HIS Blog

From VOX – British wellbeing 1780-1850: Measuring the impact of industrialisation on wages, health, inequality, and working time

by Daniel Gallardo Albarrán, appeared on 22nd May 2016